Everything You Need To Know About Relationship Counseling

Why, when and how to pursue therapy to make your relationships stronger

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 Photo by Manuel Meurisse on Unsplash

Saying “relationships are hard” is so common it’s a cliché now. But it’s also true. Even when people get along really well, stress and daily life can cause conflicts that seem difficult or even impossible to resolve. Relationship counseling can help people in these tough situations to work through their problems, move beyond them, and be better partners overall.

Relationship therapy isn’t just for married people: cohabiting couples, people in non-monogamous relationships and gay, lesbian and queer people can also benefit. It can also be helpful for siblings dealing with family issues, or even business partners!

Problems with relationships are not limited to romantic ones, even though that’s the most popular reason people consult for relationship therapy.

This article will cover the basics of relationship therapy: the signs that you need some help, how to find the best counselor for your needs, realistic expectations, and what you can do to help make your time (and money) worth it.

When Should I Seek a Relationship Therapist?

Many people believe that you should only seek relationship counseling when separation or divorce are looming. But that is often too little, too late. Relationship therapy should begin as soon as the problems get in the way of your daily life. Here are some signs that you might benefit from a consultation:

  • You have trouble expressing your feelings to one another
  • You have one or more unsolvable disagreement
  • There is withdrawal, criticism, or contempt in your interactions
  • A stressful event has shaken your daily life
  • You have trouble making decisions together
  • You experienced infidelity, addiction, or potential abuse
  • You want a stronger relationship

Remember that there are no wrong reasons to seek relationship counseling. Some couples start therapy as soon as they are married, even without obvious problems, to prevent serious problems from developing. Counselors can help you become a better communicator, develop strong relationship skills, and improve your family’s happiness. 

Keep in mind that the average couple waits six years before seeking therapy. This is a lot of time to let problems fester; at this point, troubled relationships are difficult to save. It is therefore important to acknowledge problems early and seek therapy as soon as possible.

How Do I Find A Relationship Therapist?

There are two general types of relationship therapists: clinical psychologists who specialize in couples and relationships, and registered marriage and family therapists (licensed by the AAMFT). Remember that even though their title says “marriage”, you do not need to be married to benefit from relationship counseling. 

Although going to the internet is most people's first impulse when looking for a therapist, asking for references from people you know is a more effective way to start. If you live in an urban area, there are probably hundreds of qualified therapists, and making the choice can be overwhelming.

If people you know have successfully worked with a therapist, there's a good chance they might work for you too. If you can't find references from people you know, there are many other ways to find a qualified therapist, such as professional directories. You can even seek out online relationship counseling, if that is more convenient for you and your partner.

Take advantage of the free consultation that many therapists offer for potential new clients. This is a great time to see if the particular counselor suits your needs, style, and budget. Therapist-client relationships can affect your life in many profound ways, and you should choose wisely.

What Can I Expect From Relationship Counselling?

The first few sessions will focus on your history and the problems you are there to solve. Be prepared to answer questions about your relationship, your parents, your childhood, and relationship experiences before your current one. Your therapist will possibly want to spend some time talking to everyone together and to each member separately.

The way your therapy is going to go depends on the style of your counselor and the therapeutic approach they use. The most studied style of relationship therapy is emotionally-focused therapy, or EFT. EFT is based on attachment theory, and aims to foster healthy interdependency between members of the couple or family.

Other types of relationship therapy include Imago therapy and the Gottman method. Ask your counselor which method they are trained in and which one they think is most suited to your situation.

How Can I Help Make Relationship Therapy Effective?

Effective therapy depends not only on the skills and experience of the counselor but also on the willingness of the clients. There are many things you can do to make your relationship counseling more effective.

Be Honest

Do not lie to your therapist. Sometimes we lie because we don't want to be judged. However, your therapist's job is not to judge you but to help you. Stay honest, even when it's hard.

Prepare Yourself for Discomfort

Therapy can often cause discomfort because you are discovering new truths about yourself, not all of them nice or happy. Working on yourself requires that you sit with your discomfort and acknowledge that you need to grow and improve. Your therapist is there to help but ultimately is it up to you to do the work.

Listen to Your partner(s)

Whether you are doing relationship therapy with one person or a larger family group, it's important to listen to what others have to say. Remaining on the defensive and trying to reply to everything that others bring up about your behavior is only going to make things more difficult for everyone.

Put in the Time

Therapy happens just as much in sessions as between them. Your counselor might give you homework or ask you to try new patterns of communication and interaction in between appointments. It's going to take time and effort, but remember that it is worth it.

In the end, it's the work that all members of the relationship put in that makes a difference in the results of the therapy. Do not expect the therapist to be a wizard who's going to make all your problems disappear. Consult early, engage honestly in the process, and do the work.

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